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Top 10 of 2012

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This is just about the only thing I ever blog anymore, I know. But like any good music geek, I spend much of the year thinking about what will go on my list of the year’s best, testing the options, replacing early selections with new contenders, re-reconsidering, mulling it all over, and—eventually—deciding. This year’s list is complete (finally!), so it’s time to share.

Anyone who reads this likely knows how fond I am of Americana, honky tonk, Red Dirt, and “roots” music of all stripes. If you didn’t know that already, you’d certainly infer it from this list. So keep that bias in mind. But no matter what your tastes, I think you’ll find something to like, maybe even love, on this list. Let me know.

Anyway, in reverse order, here are my Top 10 albums of 2012.

10. Live from Alabama, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – I really resisted putting Live from Alabama on my Top 10 list. I have a bit of a prejudice against live albums, I guess. In too many cases, a live album just brings you less-than-perfect renderings of songs you already know. And then you get the added “bonuses” of concert banter and odd audience sounds. Don’t get me wrong: I love live music, but it’s not necessarily what I want to play at home. Live from Alabama generally avoids those traps, though. Best of all, it brings you sounds that you can’t really hear on any other album: Isbell doing songs like “Goddamn Lonely Love,” “TVA,” and (my favorite) “Decoration Day” from his time with Drive-By Truckers. And the album closes with Isbell’s excellent cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”

9. Jimmy LaFave’s Depending on the Distance – Jimmy LaFave is one of the founders, and masters, of Red Dirt music. He’s known for, among other things, the soulfulness of his voice—and his smart Dylan covers. So imagine my surprise when I realized that his new album, his first studio effort in five years, featured a cover of John Waite’s “Missing You.” Somehow, though, LaFave leaves the 80s schlock behind, finding a real emotional core in the song. Who knew?! There are also some stellar Dylan covers on Depending, including a nine-minute cover of Dylan’s “Red River Shore” that seems, if anything, to be too short. LaFave is also a masterful songwriter, as evidenced by the lead cut, “Clear Blue Sky.” Added bonus: LaFave’s “Red Dirt Night” is built around the names of Oklahoma towns, including my hometown.

8. And So It Goes by Don Williams – I really hadn’t thought about Don Williams in years. Apparently, he even retired in 2006! But he sure doesn’t sound “retired” on this new album. He sounds as smooth and elegant as ever. (Septuagenarians of the world, unite!) There was a time, of course, when Don Williams was all over country radio. (He had nearly 20 #1 songs.) Country radio has changed since then—and not for the better. And So It Goes is an album full of songs that ought to be at the top of today’s country charts. They won’t be, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy them. Standouts: “Imagine That,” the title track, and “I Just Come Here for the Music,” a duet with Alison Krauss.

7. Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever – I’ve been a fan of Corb Lund, the Canadian cowboy singer, for years. Somehow, despite all his time in the business, Cabin Fever has seemed to some critics like a breakthrough. I sure hope they’re right. The world needs more country music like Lund’s. His is a lively country that’s more than a little off-kilter, inflected by humor and little bits of punk and rockabilly. “I think I see a rip in the social fabric,” Lund sings.  And all I can do is nod. Some of my favorite tracks: “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain,” “One Left in the Chamber,” and “Bible on the Dash” (Lund’s duet with Hayes Carll).

6. Tourist/Sleeper by Seams – And now for something completely different: Electronica. Yes, really. Seams is actually English musician James Welch, and Tourist/Sleeper is a collection of two of his EPs. Tourist, which is probably my favorite, is built around field recordings from Berlin. I particularly like the way Welch uses chimes and other percussive elements on Tourist. The result is intoxicating. There’s just enough repetition to remind you that these are songs. They’re beautiful songs, actually. Sleeper takes a more somber turn, but those are songs worth your attention, too.

5. Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel about Me Now, Justin Townes EarleNothing’s Gonna Change is Justin Townes Earle’s follow-up to 2010’s Harlem River Blues, one of the best albums of the past decade. I don’t think Nothing’s Gonna Change is quite as strong as that, but it’s a more-than-respectable effort all the same. There’s a delicious rawness to Earle’s voice, and he uses it to good effect on these songs about love, human flaws, and making a life. Nothing’s Gonna Change is significantly more, er, soulful than Earle’s previous works (there’s some backing work on horns that, somehow or other, adds to that)—and that’s absolutely fine with me. Earle is surely one of the great hipster singer-songwriters of our time. If you haven’t spent time with Nothing’s Gonna Change, you might start with “Am I That Lonely Tonight?,” the title track, or “Down on the Lower East Side.”

4. From the Ground Up, John Fullbright – John Fullbright grew up a couple of counties over from me, and that’s probably what caused me to pay attention to him in the first place. But once I got his debut CD in the player, I was riveted. I’ve now seen him in concert twice, and I can assure you he’s the real deal live, too. And I’m  not the only one who’s noticed. For gosh sakes, he just got a Grammy nomination (watch out, Mumford & Sons). Woo hoo! From the Ground Up features some exquisite songwriting. “Gawd Above” is, (in)credibly enough, written from the point of view of a bitter, lonely God. Other standout songs include “Jericho” and “Satan and St. Paul.” (Yes, there’s a lot of religious imagery. But it’s not at all creepy.) And on top of the stellar songwriting, Fullbright’s vocals are polished and distinctive. There is a lot to like here, and you will.

3. Goodbye Normal Street by Turnpike Troubadours – John Fullbright used to play with Turnpike Troubadours, so it somehow seems natural to find the two acts back-to-back on my Top 10 list. The Troubadours are a Red Dirt band that seems just to be on the verge of hitting it big in Nashville (God forbid). And why not? By now, the Troubadours are polished musicians, and the sound is tight. And these are very good songs. “Well, if you’ve been true, you better look me in the eye,” frontman (and songwriter) Evan Felker sings on the hard opener, “Gin, Smoke, and Lies.” “All I smell is cheap perfume—and gin, and smoke, and lies.” That’s some good stuff. Also good: the slightly less rockin’ “Good Lord Lorrie” and the much more country “Gone, Gone, Gone.”

2. T’Monde’s Making Believe – If there’s a CD on this list that you absolutely don’t know, it’s surely this one. T’Monde didn’t play at the Louisiana Cajun Zydeco Festival, but I somehow stumbled onto its debut CD while I was visiting New Orleans this year for the festival. (I can thank a listening station at the Louisiana Music Factory, I think.) The band consists of accordionist Drew Simon (also of the Pine Leaf Boys), guitarist Megan Brown, and fiddler Kelli-Jones Savoy. Each of the three provides vocals. I’m probably fondest of Simon’s, but it’s a real luxury to have a band with so much vocal range. And the band shows real range when it comes to song selection, too, on Making Believe—from famed accordionist Belton Richard’s “La Valse d’Ennui” to Lefty Frizzell’s “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone” (and, of course, the title track is a Kitty Wells song). You’ll probably have to go out of your way to hear T’Monde (or to buy this CD), but it’s absolutely worth the effort.

You can listen to some of Making Believe at this link. And you should.

1. Sing the Delta by Iris Dement – We waited 16 years for new material from Iris Dement—her The Way I Should, from 1996, was the third of three amazing albums in the 90s—and it would be silly to say that any new album could’ve been worth that much of a wait. But I’m tempted to say it. Sing the Delta (p.s. that’s the Arkansas Delta) is that good. In fact, just one of the songs on Delta, “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” about the death of a small child, might be the pinnacle of any good songwriter’s career. But Delta has two or three other songs (among the contenders are “Livin’ on the Inside,” “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” and the title track) that approach that quality. And I’ve written several sentences here, and I haven’t yet mentioned Dement’s beautiful, ethereal vocals. You can’t hear Dement without thinking of Emmylou Harris or early Loretta Lynn.

Iris Dement could be a national treasure for her singing or her songwriting. That she does both so well, and so genuinely, is downright confounding. No matter how I look at it, Sing the Delta is, easily, the year’s best for me.

Honorable Mentions: New Wild Everywhere, Great Lake Swimmers; Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Patterson Hood; I Know What Love Isn’t, Jens Lekman; and Dýrð í dauðaþögn, by Icelandic singer-songwriter Ásgeir Trausti (which very nearly made the list).

Written by Jimmy

December 31st, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Music